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Being There, Ponza

Bill Menard (Bill from Bella Italia)

We first visited the island of Ponza in 2008, having read about this obscure rocky island off the coast of Lazio and Campania in an article appearing in Town and Country a couple of years earlier. That article caught my attention and got my imagination racing, particularly the part about renting a scooter and buzzing along windy cliff roads overlooking a dazzling Mediterranean.

Six years later and after five glorious summer visits we can truly say that Ponza is an island paradise. Particularly the part about renting a scooter and buzzing along windy cliff roads overlooking a dazzling Mediterranean.

That first visit to Ponza was truly an exploration that gave meaning to "off the beaten track." Ponza is not very well known by or particularly hospitable to American tourists or those not speaking at least rudimentary Italian (we just clear that bar). As a tourist destination it caters mostly to Italian tourists and even more so to Roman tourists. It makes few concessions to foreigners, making it much less accessible than, say, Tuscany. But for those with the patience and courage to go for it, your efforts are richly rewarded.

Being an island, particularly one with no airport, to reach Ponza you must take some sort of boat or be a very strong swimmer. There are a handful of ferry departure points along the coast south of Rome including Terracina, Formia, Gaeta and Anzio. That first summer some internet research led us to the conclusion that the best and fastest route was to drive to Anzio, the site of the Allied invasion of Italy during World War II, and to take the hydrofoil, a 75 minute high speed trip on a boat on skis. The sensation of the hydrofoil accelerating out of Anzio harbor and lifting itself out of the water onto its enormous hydrofoils is truly remarkable. The ride is pretty smooth, too.

But we get ahead of ourselves. Before boarding the hydrofoil (or aliscafo), we had to reserve seats and book our tickets. Try navigating the vetor.it website and you will see that it is not all smooth sailing, so to speak. On that first visit we booked two seats and paid for luggage, or so we hoped, and departed our villa in Umbria for the three hour drive to Anzio, optimistic that all would work out. We found Anzio without trouble but then began to worry about what we would do with our rental car during our brief three day stay. No worries. As we neared the ferry dock we noticed a bunch of local men in blue uniform tee shirts approaching cars and conducting some sort of commerce. One came to our window and we asked where to park for the ferry. Surprisingly he volunteered to park our car for us and keep it safe, asking when we would return. We gave him our return information and our car keys and in exchange were given the security of a small blue slip of paper with some gibberish scribbled on it. He told us he would meet us upon our return in front of the ferry.

For the past five summers we have been following that same trail we blazed in 2008. And yes, the aliscafo from Anzio happens to be the best option for arriving in Ponza. And yes, the men in blue tee shirts are official (or semi-official) car parkers. Our car, or rather Avis's, was waiting for us when we returned from that first, short visit.

But no matter how you arrive in Ponza or whether your car is waiting for you when you return, the trip there is worth all of the uncertainty, all of the worry, all of the stress. Because once you arrive on this incredibly beautiful, rocky outcropping surrounded by nothing but expanses of clear, calm, blue Mediterranean there is no worry, no stress, no uncertainty. There is simply sun, air and water. Oh yes, and incredibly fresh seafood and wine so crisp it practically crunches in your mouth.

This island is a dream. On our second visit, when I was wandering along the port one morning I passed the local FedEx man who was making a delivery. He was in his fifties, had a protruding gut and uncombed hair, and a chest full of grey. He was dressed in a grimy blue bathing suit that was nearly half his age and nothing else. He was as brown as cappuccino and looked like he would be hard pressed to rub two nickels together. And he seemed utterly at peace, utterly calm, utterly content. This island is a dream.

That first year we made another fateful and wise decision. We booked a room at what appeared to be the nicest hotel on the island, the Grand Hotel (aren't they all) Chiaia di Luna. Although the hotel runs a regular micro shuttle bus from the harbor to its commanding location above the port town and perched high above the half moon shaped Chiaia di Luna beach, we did not know or were too intimidated to call and ask, so we arrive by taxi, a short five minute drive from the ferry. The last few hundred yards to the hotel are up its windy one lane drive that is so steep you fear that the taxi will flip over backwards. But then it is over. You are at the hotel, in front of the reception area and your journey is ready to begin.

The rooms at the Chiaia di Luna are lovely. Blue tile floors and whitewashed walls, windows that open wide and let in the fresh sea breeze that blows all day long. And built along the steep hillside, the rooms are terraced above one another, affording excellent views of the port town and hillside below. Standard rooms are a bit on the smallish side, ideal places for storing your children, and in subsequent years we have taken to booking a suite for ourselves, which while not cheap comes with a sitting room and an enormous terrace that overlooks the relaxing pool and outdoor bar. There are a series of small terraces and patios with comfortable outdoor furniture and hammocks, some of them affording the views in the opposite direction, toward the Chiaia di Luna beach. And crowning this whole landscape is the incredible Ki Bar, a very Euro outdoor bar that unfortunately is open only a few weeks of the year. Even when not open, the sunsets from the Ki Bar are unforgettable.

A sunset from the Ki Bar at the Chiaia di Luna

A sunset from the Ki Bar at the Chiaia di Luna

Ponza is a fishing village built on a big rock. The life of the island goes about its business without much noticing or caring about intruding tourists, but allows tourists to come visit and watch. It does little to meet tourists half way, and that is perhaps part of the magic of the place. You come and just do.

Ponza is a Roman town, built by the Romans and still haunted by them, both the ancient gladiator-type Roman and the modern Roman tourist. There are traces of the ancient in the Roman tunnel that connects the Chiaia di Luna beach to the mainland, a marvel of ancient engineering that allowed Roman legions to access the remote and isolated bay from the garrison in the port in minutes rather than hours. Other Roman remains include the ruins of the Grotte del Pilato, caves excavated along the shores of the port town by the Romans to house fish hatcheries to feed the local populace. But Ponza is, above all for us, an island retreat, a rocky slice of heaven that makes you slow down and just enjoy being. It is that utter contentment that keeps us coming back every summer.

The port town, called Ponza or il Porto, is the epicenter of the island. There you alight from the aliscafo, begin to sweat as you step ashore in your superfluous clothing and begin to shed your mainland concerns and worries. Along the crescent shaped waterfront there is a cacophony of boats tied up along the quay, grimy and rundown, their decks cluttered with tangled fishing nets but their brightly painted colors attesting to the sunny outlook of their owners. Along the quay are a multitude of doorways leading to small shops, less built upon the ground than they are gouged from it. Above this first band of structures is a second band, slightly recessed and accessed along an elevated walkway. Here, at this higher altitude one can survey the entire port and here, too, one begins to find nicer shops and a few restaurants. Along one end of the quay you find one of our favorite restaurants, la Kambusa, a freestanding structure with quasi-outdoor seating that serves the best spaghetti vongole on the island.

il Porto

il Porto

Above that arcade, the town's main street (pedestrian only), which is accessed through the main city gate, meanders past souvenir shops, racy tee shirt stands and a number of good restaurants. The street, like all streets in Ponza, is narrow and outdoor seating at restaurants along the course typically consist of a table placed against the outdoor wall, with two chairs facing outward toward the street. One good restaurant along the main street is il Timone, with above average food, great seating and engaging service.

The best way to see the island, and the one that got us there in the first place, is to rent a scooter. Just outside the main gate there are a number of rental companies and you can rent a scooter for under $40 a day. For those requiring more tires on the ground, particularly when you are driving on sheer mountain roads perched hundreds of feet above the sea, you can rent a four wheel vehicle – an open air car or a user friendly golf cart, for about the same price.

There are not many roads to choose from on Ponza. There are two routes out of the port town and both of those converge just past the Chiaia di Luna. From there, there is a single road toward the island's other main town, Le Forna. Drive through Le Forna and about ten minutes later the road ends at Cala Feola. The whole trip across the island takes less than a half hour. But during that half hour you will traverse the highest point along the spine of the island, with breathtaking views of the sheer and rocky coastline and across the vastness of the Mediterranean, stretching to the sister Pontine (belonging to Ponza) islands of Palmarola and Zannone.

But as memorable as a scooter ride along the Pontine spine is, if you have a day to spend, you should spend it renting a boat and circumnavigating the island. Along the harbor, near la Kambusa you can rent a seaworthy boat for the day in the range of $200, with or without captain. You should do this because a trip around the island, experiencing it from the outside in is even more spectacular than being on the island and looking out. And if you have time, you should also take a trip across the channel to nearby Palmarola. The crossing takes about half an hour but when you arrive there you are a world away. It is remarkable to imagine that Palmarola can make Ponza seem frenetic, but it does. The crossing will take you to a largely uninhabited island with a relaxing restaurant and some of the most beautiful remote coves and beaches anywhere.

Food? If you like seafood it does not get any fresher than Ponza. One of our favorites, a place we visit at least a couple times every trip is da Gino in Cala Feola at the end of the island. We were originally drawn to Gino's by his enticing outdoor covered terrace that is a perfect spot for lunch or dinner. But it is the food that keeps us coming back. Gino prepares a simple menu of fresh local seafood – an excellent spaghetti vongole (although not quite as memorable as la Kambusa) and soute – a local specialty of sautéed mussels and clams – that makes you want to cry. Fresh fish grilled simply and not just washed down but literally drowned with chilly biting falanghina wine from the mainland is a must.

Ponza's Fresh Seafood

Chilled falanghina wine and fresh seafood from Ponza's waters is a perfect way to end a day on the island

Another of our favorites, a place most easily reachable by boat, is also one of the best reasons to rent a boat. That place is Cala Fonte. The restaurant features a half dozen tables under a thatched roof, with locals and children lounging around, fishermen showing off their catch and a general mood that reeks of relaxation. Everything is fresh, simple and good, but our annual trek to Ponza would be worth it if only for the spaghetti with fresh lobster. When you order this dish, the owner comes tableside with a huge plastic bin full of fresh live lobsters for you to pick from. Each one is big enough for several people to share, and while they aren't cheap, it is worth almost any price, it's so good.

Cala Fonte

One of our favorite restaurants, Cala Fonte, is one of the best reasons to rent a boat: it's only reachable by water

And finally, what island would be complete without a beach? Ponza is quirky in this respect. It does not boast many sandy beaches or many particularly beautiful beaches - Chiaia di Luna, with its towering cliffs and narrow, sand beach is an exception, but, unfortunately is closed most of the time due to pesky landslides that have unexpectedly claimed the lives of sun worshippers. The most popular beach on the island is the sandy Frontone public beach that is accessible by water taxi shuttle from the main port. This overcrowded beach with its multitude of beach chairs has never really appealed to us. Instead, we prefer the little rocky beaches - cala - that dot every nook and cranny of the island. Our favorites are cala fonte (just below Gino's restaurant) which we refer to as the River Styx because to reach the rocky outcrop you have to either wade across a shallow inlet or take a €1 hand-pulled ferry to the other side.

But our favorite is la Caletta, just across the bay from cala feola in an area called "le piscine naturali"(the natural pools) by locals. Run by a genial native named Silverio (also the moniker of the island's patron saint), la Caletta is reached by walking down a very steep set of stairs and paths from the town of Le Forna and then across some small bridges and planks set up by Silverio. Once there you rent chairs and umbrellas from him and he is your friend for the day (or in our case, our friend for life). Food is brought around just when it is needed - coconut, watermelon and popsicles - and lunch can be ordered - Silverio's specialty is a bread salad with fresh tomatoes and often tuna that he calls ponzanella - a take off on the word panzanella. Beers and water are generally available. Armed with a fresh ponzanella, a beer, a good breeze, the colorful umbrellas, Italians in various states of undress and the shimmering, clear cool waters of the Mediterranean, life really cannot get any better than that.

Ponza. Every bit as engaging as Town and Country promised, it has drawn us back for five straight summers and our dreaming and planning for trip number six is well underway. You might just call it our Ponza scheming.


Bill Menard, along with his wife Suzy, splits his time between Bella Italia, a majolica ceramics store in Bethesda, MD, and their villa in Cannara, Umbria. Bill and Suzy have built a life for themselves out of their connections to Italy, its crafts, and its people. Through their storefront and in their personalized, authentic tours in Umbria, they have made it their work (and pleasure) to share the peninsula's beauty with others.

© Bill Menard, 2013

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